How Museveni’s vulnerability at home dragged Uganda and Rwanda to conflict

Much as Uganda has the “freedom to organise its affairs”, how the once flourishing security relations of the two countries suddenly turned into a policy of scapegoating for internal political vulnerabilities caught Rwanda by surprise.

On June 8, 2019, Uganda's The Daily Monitor carried a story by Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama entitled, “How clashes of class, egos drag Uganda and Rwanda to conflict.”

Mr. Izama attempts to situate the current episode in the context of a broader protracted structural conflict of the Banyarwanda-Bahima rivalry dating as far back as the 1980s NRA bush war that brought President Museveni to power in January 1986.

Izama’s analysis has two fundamental flaws that ultimately lead him to spurious conclusions.

His reading of the current crisis clearly lacks factual knowledge and he takes on face value the interpretation of history by the “academic and NRM intellectual.”

Facts on the current crisis

Izama falls in the trap of Museveni propagandists who place former IGP, Gen Kale Kayihura, at the centre of the problems between Rwanda and Uganda.

He argues that during Kale’s reign, a close relationship had developed between the police forces of both countries so much so that Rwanda was allowed to conduct “renditions” of its enemies from Uganda. “Rwanda had penetrated deep into Kampala’s security establishment,” Izama writes.

The author does not give a single example of the “renditions” that Kigali conducted from Uganda. It is in the same way he casually repeats pro-Museveni propaganda that Rwanda closed its borders with Uganda.

When pressed on the fact that two out of three borders have always been fully operational and Gatuna was only partially barred - to heavy trucks - due to ongoing mutually agreed construction by the two countries, Ugandan officials and commentators simply ignore the inconvenient facts and just continue repeating the same untruth.

Similarly, when pressed to name the people who have suffered Rwandan “renditions” as a result of Kayihura’s purported complicity with Rwanda, they point to Lt Joel Mutabazi, who was legally repatriated to Rwanda and  tried on terrorist charges in an open court – unlike the hundreds of Rwandans who are languishing in CMI secret cells across Uganda without access to consular support, to lawyers, or to hear the charges against them and then be given the opportunity to defend themselves in court.

There is something important to understand when it comes to the repatriation of Mutabazi, and this is an inconvenient fact Izama dances around. He writes that the security cooperation between Uganda and Rwanda had “flourished” during Kale’s reign as IGP. However, for any relationship to flourish, there has to be an element of reciprocity.

There was plenty of that. Uganda Police and Rwanda Police are signatories to the  13-member East African Police Chiefs Organization Cooperation (EAPCCO) framework agreement that, among other areas of cooperation, required mutual repatriation of fugitives in the member states. Additionally, the Uganda Police Force (UPF) and the Rwanda National Police (RNP) had a similar bilateral cooperation arrangement.

Indeed, like Izama observes, the relationship flourished and involved the repatriation of stolen cars, cash, and at one point Rwanda repatriated cattle belonging to Ugandans.

It was mutual. However, Uganda benefited the most when it came to repatriating fugitives: more than 26 Ugandan fugitives – including Shanita Namuyimbwa aka Bad Black – were apprehended in Rwanda and sent to Uganda to face justice. In turn, Rwanda received only 9 fugitives from Uganda.

It was beyond just Kale. For instance, the handover of Mutabazi to Rwanda was done by Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

Why the story of the official handing him over changed from Muhoozi to Kale will become obvious as you read.

Most importantly, the only way Izama’s argument that the repatriation of fugitives from Uganda was only possible because “Rwanda had penetrated deep into Kampala’s security establishment,” can hold is if the argument is applied equally to the repatriation of fugitives from Rwanda to Uganda.

In other words, that the repatriation of twice as many Ugandans from Rwanda was possible only because Uganda had penetrated deep into Kigali’s security establishment.

Uganda’s internal weaknesses

Much as Izama feeds on pro-Museveni propaganda, he shows signs that he could have addressed the real problem had he really wanted.

For instance, he observes that this close relationship was torn apart due to some internal challenges that Uganda happened to be facing that “had nothing to do with Rwanda.”

What were these domestic problems and, most importantly, if these domestic challenges had nothing to do with Rwanda, why did the authorities find it necessary to drag Rwanda into them?

“They included embarrassingly high levels of crime that shamed the police establishment and was politically dangerous to President Museveni,” Izama observes, before proceeding to make the most important revelation: It is Uganda’s “fragile transitional politics that made Gen Kayihura’s status as the centre-piece of security decision making untenable.”

A fragile domestic front – “that had nothing to do with Rwanda” – had exposed the weakness of the system and threatened Museveni politically.

At this point Izama could have ended his article because, already, he had made an important contribution to understanding the trigger of this current episode of the on-and-off conflict between Uganda and Rwanda.

External pressure

Museveni’s reaction to the internal pressure that has been piling up since the 2016 presidential elections had gradually turned off his external “diplomatic assets” and undermined the pursuit of his post-2016 foreign policy goals.

Again, Izama allows himself to be influenced by the pro-Museveni propaganda in how he interprets the post-2016 events.

A key outcome of the elections was the discovery on the part of Museveni of how much he had become unpopular, even amongst the rural masses. The open discontent in the cities and towns was palpable.

Further, the entry of the People Power Movement as a political force to reckon with made an already vulnerable Museveni panicky.

The “spiralling violent crime” around the country is one way he decided to deal with the political vulnerabilities on the domestic front.

Over this time, a systematic assassination of perceived political opponents went into full gear: the murder of prominent Muslim clerics, senior state prosecutor Joan Kagezi, Gen Aronda Nyakairima, AIGP Andrew Kaweesi, Sheikh Major Mohammed Kiggundu, SSP Mohammad Kirumira, MP Ibrahim Abiriga, etc.

The brutal torture of Hon Francis Zaake and Hon Robert Kyagulanyia (better known as Bobi Wine), more than anything else, hurt Museveni’s foreign policy goals and compromised his “diplomatic assets” at the United Nations and the European Union.

The problem is, as Izama notes, “a purely Ugandan question.” Most importantly, how this situation would trigger – rather than use as pretext – the “subsequent reorganisation of the police, the wider military intelligence sector” as a means of “helping to rebalance the foreign policy position and take control of spiralling violent crime” is rather preposterous.

What is inescapable is that the vulnerabilities at home and abroad needed a local and foreign scapegoat and Kale’s “centre-piece” status made him the perfect fall-guy to deliver the ideal scapegoat – Rwanda.

Rwanda blindsided

Much as Uganda has the “freedom to organise its affairs” how the once flourishing security relations of the two countries suddenly turned into a policy of scapegoating for internal political vulnerabilities caught Rwanda by surprise.

Kigali was especially blindsided by the dusting-off of officers, whose only reputation since the NRA bush war period, as Izama notes, is their hatred of Rwandans.

This coterie became the new “centre-piece of security decision making.” Rwanda protested to Uganda, in the mistaken belief that the spirit of cooperation still existed.

It was flat out ignored. What Rwanda had, up to that point, perceived as a minor misunderstanding that could be corrected with due time took a radical turn as Gen Henry Tumukunde, Gen Elly Tumwine, and Salim Saleh’s former escort Abel Kandiho began to implement a policy of hostility.

This signalled to Kigali that the “reorganisation” was a deliberate and substantive, not an incidental, policy shift.  

However, Uganda soon showed its hand with the emergence of Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress (RNC) as a key partner in this security reorganisation that Kigali perceived as constituting an open declaration of aggression by Kampala.

That Museveni decision raised the “misunderstanding” to the high stakes crisis that it is today.

The prelude had blown onto the scene fortuitously about six months prior to Gen Kayihura’s arrest. On December 11, 2017, 46 RNC recruits were intercepted at the Kikagati border on their way to the terrorist group’s training centre in Minembwe, South Kivu, DRC.

Border immigration officials became suspicious of the fake travel documents they were carrying and the conflicting stories about where they were heading.

The officials called the police whose efforts to apprehend the suspects faced resistance from accompanying CMI officers who insisted that they were acting on "orders from above.”

The centre-piece he was, Kayihura prevailed over Kandiho and had his officer at the scene, Colonel Ndahura, apprehend the suspects at Isingiro police post.

After a brief interrogation, they confessed to CMI facilitation of the travel documents and the fake stories they were to tell immigration officials.

On March 25, 2018, in a joint press conference with President Kagame who had gone to Uganda to prevent a crisis, President Museveni admitted that his security forces had indeed facilitated these recruits, “A group of Banyarwanda was being recruited through Tanzania and Burundi to go to Congo. They said they were going for church work, but when they were interrogated it was found the work wasn’t exactly religious. It was something else,” Museveni told journalists.

This embarrassing interception by Uganda Police of RNC recruits facilitated by CMI signalled the end of Kale Kayihura. During his arrest three months later, twenty six of his subordinates who had at one point or another intercepted RNC movements were apprehended.

They remain in military confinement. In other words, their crime was never the repatriation of Rwandans as pro-Museveni propaganda has Izama thinking.

On the contrary, going after a “centre piece” was essential in Museveni’s quest for a scapegoat – at home and abroad – to stave off his domestic troubles that had his hold on power slipping.

The members of the triumvirate “centrepiece” – some out in the cold for decades of being ignored – began to outdo each other competing for attention and bigger operational budgets.

Whoever the RNC would point to they would arrest and ask questions later. Ironically, it was the RNC, rather than Kigali's security agencies, that now truly became embedded into Uganda’s Security Establishment, even arresting people without the presence of any of the formal organs, as victims of torture have testified time and again.

As more and more victims of torture began to trickle in, Rwanda had seen more than it needed to. It issued a very strong advisory to its citizens against travelling to Uganda.

Whereas the first part of Izama’s analysis is merely misinformed, the second part is rather regrettable. For one thing, he draws heavily on the erroneous interpretation of history in the writing of someone he already known to be an “NRM academic and intellectual,” whose perspectives – like those of the pro-Museveni propagandists that informed his analysis in the first part – he takes on face value.  

Izama and the NRM academic he bases his interpretation of the historical facts on take for granted that Museveni should have a right to export his “view of state building” to Rwanda.

However, Rwanda’s 'stubborn refusal' of Museveni’s vision means it has “resented [it] as a basis for their partnership and then violently rejected in Kisangani,” Izama writes with no sense of shame regarding such a preposterous proposition for a sovereign state.  

Remarkably, Izama thinks that Rwanda should accept Museveni’s vision for it and still remain within a “separate but equal” partnership rather than nurture “a culture of competition where cooperation would be the most meaningful path,” he writes rather condescendingly, as if willing himself to forget the very reasons he has given for the collapse of the once “flourishing” security relations between the two countries.

Uganda and Rwanda would be in good terms if only it weren’t for “Mr. Kagame’s self-reliance and conviction,” attributes that make him a “complex character” and a “force of personality.” These attributes predispose Kagame to “a radical dedication to independent decision making.” This seems to square with Museveni’s complaint about Kagame, “he doesn’t listen to me,” he once told President Nyerere of Tanzania. Izama also thinks Kagame should.

In reality, Museveni's need for scapegoats for failures on both domestic and international fronts, and his inability to accept that Rwanda can never be a Ugandan satrap are what is driving the ongoing hostility between the two countries.

A solution to walk back the tension lies entirely in Mr Museveni's hands. It starts from accepting a simple fact: Both Uganda and Rwanda are sovereign states, each with its own national interests.

Their relationship, like all interstate relations, must be based on the need to cooperate for mutual benefit. No productive relations are possible where one believes it has a right to oversee how the other governs itself.

Nor should any leader believe dragging a neighbour into his country's domestic politics as a scapegoat is conducive to productive bilateral relations.

Angelo Izama missed an excellent opportunity to bring out these key points in his analysis.

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